The Hamlet Plays
nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman
April 29, 2006
Some thirty years ago, Tom Stoppard’s groundbreaking play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, gave audiences a new way to see Hamlet, through the eyes of two minor characters on whose lives the plot of the play turns. The Hamlet Plays is a collection of six ten-minute plays, which are playing in rep with a production of Stoppard’s play. Each of the plays is written by a Milk Can Theatre Company associate, and as the press materials state, the plays “[allow] each artistic associate to take a crack at what Stoppard did 30 years ago.” The result is a very entertaining and enjoyable hour of theatre.
The set for all six plays is an almost-bare stage with a two-story scaffolding, which I assume is part of the Rosencrantz set since I can’t imagine why the company would have built it for these “no-frills” pieces, which nonetheless use it effectively as a bedroom, a grave site, an apartment, and the edge of Ophelia’s pond. Although the design in the plays is minimal, certain aspects stick out—particularly the funny props in Baloney and the costumes, designed by Marija Djordjevic, in Maybe He’s Just Not That Into You…. The music between the plays, designed by Nick Moore, showcases the work of other artists who have written about themes in the plays.
The Player King Musical takes a look at a modern-day version of the Player King, viewing him as a frustrated actor forced to leave New York City for a paying gig teaching second graders. The show features two talented singers, Dennis Clark and Carrie Ann Champlin, and provides a high-energy opening to the shows. As I am not familiar with the specifics of the Player King in Hamlet, while watching the show, I found myself wanting to look it up. That’s certainly a good sign!
Baloney, which features the philosophizing of two gravediggers, attempts a self-conscious humor, with props serving as jokes and some meta-theatrical moments, such as breaking the fourth wall and some self-conscious lines. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think it really reached the tone it was after—a sort of ironic, self-aware wit. Nonetheless, I appreciated the work of the actors, Byron Blevins and Timothy Cole.
The Match, about two competitive roommates, one decisive and the other slower to act, takes a contemporary look at the fight between Hamlet and Laertes. I enjoyed figuring out the connection to Shakespeare and the surprise ending. The actors Derek Peith and Nick Fondulis make it easier to enjoy the surprise with their quick transitions.
The Lamp’s Lit, the most serious play on the program, shows a different side of Gertrude. In this play, I particularly enjoyed writer Cheryl Davis’s dialogue. The way Roya Shanks’s Gertrude negotiates speaking and interacting with both TJ Morton’s Ghost and Andrew Zimmerman’s creepy and unaware Claudius make for some very interesting staging.
The two treats of the bunch, the ones I found the most entertaining, are Bethany Larsen’s Maybe He’s Just Not That Into You… and Decisive, with music by Nick Moore and book and lyrics by Susannah Pearse.
Maybe He’s Just… makes fun of the currently popular “women obsessed with bad relationships with men” genre (think Sex and the City, of course). The three fantastic actresses in this piece, Cynthia Rice, Lauren Mary Gleason, and Katie Northlich, seem to be having so much fun with Bethany Larsen’s story, nailing the way women talk to each other obsessively about men. I particularly loved Larsen’s characterization of Ophelia as a frazzled drama queen. As portrayed by Gleason, she is desperate, annoying, dumb, sweet, and troubled. I either wanted to hug her or push her into the pond myself.
Decisive ends the set on a very high note. This musical—about a support group for people who cannot be satisfied after playing Hamlet—is really funny and really campy, seeming to draw choreography from both The Rocky Horror Show and the video of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Standing out in the cast is Reza Jacobs as one of the Hamlets and the keyboardist. I also loved Jennifer Stackpole’s Rachel, who’s so bright-eyed and energetic, and John Buxton’s Keanu Reeves-like Alex. Jared Dembowski’s Ricard, with his Clay Aiken hair, made me laugh out loud.
Overall, The Hamlet Plays is light and enjoyable while providing an intellectual tickle. Audience members who are concerned that the plays require a deep knowledge of Hamlet should not worry. I am certainly not an expert on the play and I really had a good time watching these playful views of Hamlet’s characters and this company of artists that makes it work.